Cobra strike, p.2
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       Cobra Strike, p.2

           Timothy Zahn

  "In other words, we're being asked to sign an essentially blank agreement?" one of the newer syndics asked.

  "Not really." Governor Jor Hemner shook his head, the movement looking risky on one so frail. "There are lots of intermediate possibilities, including buying the Baliu's data or sending our own survey team out to take a look. Standard

  Troft trade procedure assumes we'll come up with these suggestions ourselves.

  What I'm worried about is whether setting a precedent of this kind is a good idea."

  "Why not?" someone else spoke up from Corwin's side of the room. "It's the fear of the Cobras that keeps the Trofts friendly, isn't it? How better to show them that kind of caution is good policy?"

  "And if we lose?" Hemner asked stiffly.

  "The Cobras haven't lost anything yet."

  Corwin glanced at Governor Howie Vartanson of Caelian, wondering if he'd comment. But the other merely curled his lip slightly and kept silent.

  Politicians from Caelian tended to adopt that low-profile position when they came to Aventine, Corwin had noticed; but the point, he felt, ought to be made.

  Subtly, if possible.... "I'd like to point out," he spoke up, "that one or more new planets would enable us to solve the problem of Caelian without depriving the 19,000 people there of the right to their "own" world."

  "Only if they'd be willing to leave," Stiggur said; but the mention of Caelian, as Corwin had planned, seemed to bring the members' thoughts to the current stalemate between the Cobras and that strange world's hostile ecology. "Fluid genetic adaptation," the official reports elegantly called, it. The Caelians' own term was considerably cruder: Hell's Blender. Every species on the planet, from the simplest lichen to the largest predator, seemed mindlessly determined to hold onto his ecological and territorial niche against all efforts to dislodge it. Clear some land and soak it with vegebarrier, and within days there would be a dozen new plant variants attempting to reclaim it. Build a house where a thicket had been, and before long the local fungi would be growing on the walls. Create a city, or even a small town, and the displaced animals would find their way in somehow... and not only the small ones. A world under perpetual siege, Corwin had once heard Jonny call it. Only the Caelians themselves knew how-or why-they put up with it.

  For another long moment the room was again silent. Stiggur looked around, nodded at what he saw. "Well. I think we can safely agree with Governor Telek that considerably more information is needed before we can even consider acting. For the moment, then, you're to keep this proposal a secret from the general populace while you work out the various pros and cons for yourselves. Now, then-one final item and we'll be adjourned. I have a list of Cobra applicants awaiting final Council approval." The twelve names-an unusually high number-appeared on Corwin's screen, along with their home towns and districts.

  All the names were familiar ones; the Cobra Academy screeners had sent in their test results nearly a month ago. Justin Moreau was the seventh one listed.

  "Do I hear any votes against these citizens becoming Cobras, either individually or as a group?" Stiggur asked the standard question. A couple of nearby heads turned in Corwin's direction; clamping his jaw tightly, he kept his eyes on the governor-general and his hands in his lap. "No? Then this Council affirms the decision of the Cobra Academy officials, and hereby directs them to begin the irreversible stages of the Cobra process." Stiggur pushed a button and the room's screens blanked. "This Council session is adjourned."

  Irreversible stages. Corwin had heard those words at least twenty times before at these meetings, but somehow they'd never sounded so final. But then, he'd never heard them applied to his own younger brother before, either.

  Justin Moreau let the car roll to a stop in front of the house, feeling the tension in his shoulders translate along his arms to a brief white-knuckled squeeze on the wheel. The word had come by phone only an hour ago that the

  Council had given final approval to his application. Tomorrow the surgery would begin that would finally and firmly set him down in his father's footsteps... but tonight he would have to face his mother's pain.

  "You ready?" Joshua asked from the seat next to him.

  "As ready as I'll ever be." Opening the door, Justin got out and headed toward the house, his brother falling into step beside him.

  Corwin answered Joshua's knock, and despite his tension Justin found himself enjoying the inevitable half-second it took their older brother to figure out which was which. Even among identical twins Joshua and Justin were unusually hard to tell apart, a fact that had caused untold confusion throughout their lives. Family and close friends were generally able to manage the trick, but even with them a secret swap of tunics could sometimes go undetected for hours.

  They'd pulled such stunts innumerable times when they were younger, a game they'd given up only after their father threatened to color-code them with liberal applications of paint.

  "Joshua; Justin," Corwin nodded, looking at each in turn as if to prove he'd gotten them straight. "Abandon all hope of light conversation, you who enter here. The Moreau War Council is in session tonight."

  Oh, great, Justin groaned inwardly. But Corwin had stepped aside, and Joshua was already heading in, and it was too late to back out now. Squaring his shoulders,

  Justin followed.

  His parents were already seated together on the living room couch, and from long habit Justin gave his father a quick once-over. A little weaker-looking, perhaps, than the last time he'd seen him, but not much. Of more significance was the slight flicker of pain that crossed Jonny's eyes as he gave the twins an abbreviated wave in greeting. The pain pills for his arthritis really didn't affect his mental facilities all that much; if he'd opted to do without them there was some high-powered thought going on in here indeed. A glance at his mother's grim face confirmed it, and for a long minute Justin wondered if he'd drastically underestimated the level of family opposition to his Cobra ambitions.

  But that assumption didn't last long. "Dinner'll be ready in about half an hour," Jonny told the twins as they chose chairs and sat down. "Until then, I want to feel you out on a proposal Stiggur dropped on the Council session today.


  Corwin took a seat where he could see all the others' faces. "This is all to be kept secret, of course," he said... and then launched into the damnedest story

  Justin had ever heard.

  Jonny let a few seconds pass after his eldest had finished and then cocked an eyebrow at the twins. "Well? Reactions?"

  "I don't trust them," Joshua said promptly. "Especially the Tlos demesne. Why should they offer their set-up services for nothing?"

  "That much is obvious," Jonny told him. "It is what's known as a free sample-and running both ways. If we take the job and the Baliu demesne likes our work, the

  Tlossies will undoubtedly offer themselves as our agents to any other interested demesnes."

  "And if we like the deal, they'll offer us their services in finding new jobs,"

  Corwin nodded. "They pulled the same type of inducement scheme when we were first opening up trade with the Trofts generally, which is one reason they now handle so much of it."

  "All right," Joshua shrugged. "Assume the offer's legitimate. Are five planets of dubious value worth fighting a war for? An unprovoked war, yet?"

  "Flip that over, though," Corwin said. "Suppose this new alien is a genuine and imminent threat. Do we dare simply ignore it and hope it won't find us? Maybe it would be better to take it out now while it can be done relatively easily."

  "And what does "relatively easily" mean?" Joshua countered.

  Justin glanced at his mother's tight-lipped expression. The pattern was now a familiar one: Corwin usually took the devil's advocate position in these round tables, which implied Jonny was leaning toward the nay side on the issue. His reasons would be interesting to hear, but he was unlikely to voice them until the twins had had their say. But Chrys might not be so reticent. "Mom, you haven
't said anything yet. How do you feel?"

  She looked at him, a tired smile touching the corners of her mouth. "With you about to become a Cobra? Of course I don't want to risk your life for worlds we won't even need for another millennium. But aside from that emotional reaction, my logic center can't help but wonder why the Trofts want us to do this. They have a war machine the equal of the Dominion's-if they can't handle this alien threat, what do they expect us to do?"

  Justin looked at Joshua, saw his own sudden thoughtfulness only hinted at in his brother's face. Understandable; Justin knew much more about both Cobra capabilities and limitations than Joshua did. He turned to his father, who seemed in turn to be watching him. "Odd," he said.

  "Indeed," Jonny agreed. "The only advantage Cobras have over combat-suited troops is the fact that our weapons are concealed. It's hard to imagine a normal, non-guerrilla war where that's a deciding factor."

  "Of course, the nearest known combat suits are way over in the Dominion-" Corwin began.

  "But if they can hire us they can just as easily hire them," Justin finished for him. "Right?"

  Corwin nodded. "Which leads me, at least, to only one answer for Mom's question."

  There was a brief pause. "A test," Joshua said at last. "They want another crack at seeing just how powerful Cobras really are."

  Jonny nodded. "I can't see any other explanation. Especially since the demesnes at this end of the Assemblage probably didn't have any direct contact with human forces during the war. All they've got are the farside demesnes' reports, and they may think those are exaggerated."

  "So... what do we do?" Joshua asked. "Play it safe and say we're above mercenary work?"

  "That would be my recommendation," his father sighed. "Unfortunately-well, you tell them, Corwin."

  "I took a quick sample of Council opinion right after the meeting," Corwin said.

  "The eight syndics and two governors I talked to who'd followed this same line of reasoning were split straight down the middle on whether backing down would be a dangerous signal of weakness."

  "If we try it and fail, what kind of a signal is that?" Joshua snorted.

  Justin looked at Corwin. "What about the other Cobras on the Council?" he asked.

  "Did you talk to them?"

  "One of them, yes. He was more interested in discussing the various modifications that would be needed to bring the Cobras back to full war footing."

  "Actually, it wouldn't take much more than a replacement of the optical enhancement system," Jonny said. "The ones we've got now don't have the multiple targeting lock we'd need in combat. We'd have to change the academic and some of the practical content of the training, too, but aside from that a changeover would be easy. The nanocomputers still carry all the combat reflex programming, certainly."

  Justin's tongue swiped briefly at his lips. Combat reflexes. The Cobra information packets were never quite that blunt; but that was, after all, what the Instant Defense Capabilities really were. Combat reflexes. What had sounded perfectly reasonable for a one-on-one confrontation with a spine leopard didn't seem nearly as reliable for the confusion of full warfare.

  Still... one of those same little computers had helped keep his father alive through three years of guerrilla war against the Trofts; his father and Cally

  Halloran and hundreds of others. The computer, and the bone-strengthening laminae, and the servo motor network, and the lasers, and the sonics.... He found his eyes ranging over his father's form as he catalogued the weaponry and equipment implanted there... the equipment that the surgeons at the Cobra

  Academy would start putting into his own body tomorrow...

  Someone was calling his name. Snapping out of his reverie, Justin focused on his older brother. "Sorry," he said. "Thoughts were elsewhere. What did you say?"

  "I was asking what you thought of the idea of being a mercenary, if that's what it ultimately boils down to," Corwin said. "Ethically, I mean."

  Justin shrugged uncomfortably, avoiding his mother's eyes. "Actually, it doesn't look to me like we can be pure mercenaries on this one. We may be defending the

  Worlds against an alien threat; we will be making a statement to the whole Troft

  Assemblage as to what kind of defensive capabilities we have here. Either way, we're ultimately serving our own people... which is what Cobras are supposed to do."

  "In other words, you wouldn't mind going off to fight?" Chrys asked quietly.

  Justin winced at her tone, but kept his voice steady. "I don't mind fighting if it's necessary. But I don't think we should hand that decision to the Trofts, either. The Council should get all the data on these aliens that we can and then make their decision without regard to these five planets being dangled in front of us."

  In the kitchen a soft tone sounded. "Dinner time," Jonny announced, levering himself carefully out of the couch. "And with the food comes an end to political talk. Thank you for your feedback-it's nice to know we have a family consensus on this. Now hop to the kitchen and give your mother a hand. Table needs setting, vegetables a final rinse, and I believe it's your turn, Corwin, to carve the roast."

  Corwin nodded and headed for the kitchen, Joshua hard on his heels. Chrys stayed at Jonny's side; and Justin lingered long enough to see his father fumble out his vials of pain pills. The political talk is indeed over, he told himself.

  Leaving his parents to themselves, he hurried toward the kitchen to assist his brothers.

  Chapter 3

  Sometime in the past year or two one of Aventine's violent springtime thunderstorms had swept this part of the Trappers Forest, and the region's highest hill had taken a real beating. At least one tree had been blown to kindling by the lightning; six others had been knocked flat by either lightning or wind. The result was a hilltop which, despite its lousy footing, provided a clear line of sight for thirty meters in every direction. An unnecessary luxury for the average Cobra command post... but then, the average Cobra mission didn't have civilian observers to watch out for, either.

  Audio enhancers at full power, Almo Pyre sent his gaze slowly around the edges of the informal clearing, acutely conscious of the middle-aged woman standing at his side. A civilian was bad enough; but to have one of Aventine's three governors out here was the sort of unnecessary-not to say damnfool-risk no Cobra leader in his right mind would take. I should have left her behind, Pyre though irritably. The official mayhem would've been nothing to what'll happen if she gets killed.

  A soft hum-three brief notes-sounded from the receiver in his right ear: Winward had spotted one of their target spine leopards. Pyre hummed an acknowledgement into the wire-mike curving along his cheek, adding an alert to the others.

  Limited and sometimes awkward to use, the humming code had the advantage that it wasn't loud enough to kick in the cutoffs in the listener's audio enhancers.

  "Hmm?" Governor Lizabet Telek hummed. The sound was louder than another Cobra would've used, but at least she knew enough not to ask her questions out loud.

  Pyre notched back the audio, automatically shifting more attention to his visual scan as he did so. "Michael's found one," he explained quietly. "The others will be sweeping in with a net pattern, watching for cubs and other adults."

  "Cubs." Telek's voice was even, but there was more than a touch of dissatisfaction beneath it.

  Pyre shrugged fractionally. Had he seen a flicker of movement in the shadow between two trees? "This year's cubs will be next year's breeders," he reminded her. "If you biology people can come up with a way-"

  A swoosh of branches came from his right, and he spun to see a large feline body shooting down at them from the trees.

  The leap would be short-that much was instantly obvious-but Pyre knew the predator would hit the ground running. His hands were already in firing position-little fingers pointed toward the spine leopard, thumbs resting against ring fingers' nails-and as the animal stretched its hind legs downward for a landing he squeezed.

  The lasers in
his little fingers spat needles of light into the spine leopard's face, burning fur and bone and brain tissue. But Pyre's intended target, its eyes, escaped destruction, and the creature's more decentralized nervous system shrugged off the brain damage as if not noticing it. The spine leopard landed, feet stumbling slightly on the branch-littered surface-Pyre had twisted and was swinging his left leg to bear when Telek gasped. "Behind you!" she snapped.

  A glimpse over his shoulder was all Pyre could get from his angle, but it was enough. The flicker he'd seen in the forest had become a second spine leopard, charging them like a furry missile.

  And spinning the direction he was, Pyre was out of position to do anything about it. "Down!" he barked at Telek, hoping desperately he could attract the spine leopard's attack to himself. His programmed reflexes gave him a fighting chance, but they had no provision for defending bystanders, as well.... An instant later his left leg reached firing position, and from the heel of his boot the brilliant spear of his antiarmor laser lanced out.

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