Cobra strike, p.20
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       Cobra Strike, p.20

           Timothy Zahn
 

  Nnamdi paused, looking to Telek. Steeling herself, she nodded. He licked his lips and turned back to the mike. "I'm sending him out now. Okay?"

  The static remained unbroken. Putting down the mike, Nnamdi slumped in his seat and closed his eyes. Across the room, Winward got easily to his feet. "That's my cue, I believe," he remarked, picking up his formal tunic from the back of a chair and slipping it on over his black nightfighter combat suit.

  "Comm set," Link murmured "Got it," Winward nodded, scooping up the translator-link pendant/earphone set laying on the table in front of Nnamdi.

  "Governor, I'll try to find and hit the jammer first, but if I can't find it

  I'll go straight for the tower's defenses. If you pick up gunfire and explosions from back there, sweep the forest with comm laser fire and send Dorjay out."

  "Right," Telek said, trying to match his calm tone. "Good luck, and don't take any stupid chances."

  He twitched a smile at her and left. Sinking into the seat next to Nnamdi, Telek watched the screen... and a minute later the outside monitors showed the Cobra walking slowly toward the tower, a half-meter-square white flag held prominently in front of him.

  No shells arced out of the sky as he made his slow way across the airfield.

  Telek's heart thudded painfully, her emotions flip-flopping between hope and the fear that too much hope would automatically bring about disaster. Link, who had moved to watch over her shoulder, twice reached down to jump the magnification.

  The second time he did so they saw that a force of eight Qasamans had gathered at the foot of the tower to await Winward's arrival. Eight Qasamans, and of course eight mojos.

  Two stepped forward as Winward neared the group, their drawn guns glinting in the faint backwash of Sollas's lights. They relieved him of his flag and frisked him for weapons. The entire force then formed a box around him and led him away, not into the tower but around toward the building's side. Taking him to someone in authority? Telek wondered. Maybe even to the officer in charge of their antiaircraft weapons?

  They all disappeared around the corner... and a minute later the breeze carried with it the sound of a single gunshot.

  Chapter 19

  The bus pulled finally to a stop beside a darkened building and Moff motioned toward the door with his pistol. "Out," the old man added unnecessarily. Keeping his movements smooth and nonthreatening, Justin stood up and let the Qasamans escort him outside.

  The building was a shock of d‚j… vu, and it took Justin only a second to realize what it reminded him of. "Looks like a stunted version of the Sollas airfield tower," he remarked as Moff led him toward a guard-flanked door. "Oddly out of place here in the middle of a city."

  Moff didn't answer. Two separate doors at least, Justin noted, scanning the structure casually, and three floors with windows. Lots of ways in. Come on,

  Almo-hit these guys and let's see what's in there.

  But no flashes of laser light interrupted them as they walked to the building door. There Moff stopped and turned, leveling his gun at Justin's chest. "You will put your hands behind your back now," the old man said from behind the ring of Qasamans.

  Justin complied, and cold metal bands clamped around his wrists. Almo, where are you? he thought fiercely, flicking glances at the surrounding buildings.

  Moff led them between the guards and into the building. The high-security building where the Qasamans felt it safe to bring an unknown danger.

  The sweat was beginning to break out on Justin's forehead. It's all right, he told himself. It's all right. So you're on your own; but you've been trained for this sort of thing. Two doors, and three floors of windows, remember? Getting away will be a snap. Carefully he let his fingers explore the cuffs holding him.

  The wrist rings were dauntingly thick... but it was a short chain, not a solid bar, that connected them. A moment's experimentation showed he could curl either of his fingertip lasers to rest against one of the links. While he might get burned in the process, it should only take a few seconds to cut himself free.

  Though not if the targeting lock wanted to hit the mojos first.... Shivering at what could have been a nasty mistake, he canceled the lock. Take it easy,

  Justin-you're letting yourself get flustered.

  Moff led them down a hallway to an elevator. A car was waiting for them. "Where are we going?" Justin asked, just to break the silence.

  But no one answered. Three of the guards herded Justin into the car; Moff and the old man joined them. Steady, kid, steady. Justin bit down on his rising fear. Just see where they're taking you, then knock 'em against the walls and out a window.

  Moff pushed the bottom of a long row of buttons... and the elevator started down.

  Down. Into the ground-deep into the ground, if the buttons were each a full floor-where there were no doors or windows to escape through. And for perhaps the first time in his life Justin realized he was terrified. The universe, which had always seemed to protect him, was a long way up, far above his little elevator car. He was surrounded by the armed guards and hairtrigger killer birds of a frightened and angry society... and it dawned on him with a sharpness like the smell of ozone that the men he would soon be facing intended him to die in this deep hole. They didn't know he was a Moreau, didn't care that he was a

  Cobra, and when they were through with him they would kill him.

  And Justin panicked.

  All thoughts of finding out what this place was, all considerations of not revealing his Cobra equipment, all thoughts even of mercy-all of it simply fled his mind before the bubbling wave of panic that welled suffocatingly up into his throat. The men, guns, and mojos surrounding him were a claustrophobic pillow across his face... and without making a conscious decision to do so, he exploded into action.

  His fingertip lasers and sonic fired first, the former at the chain binding his wrists, the latter in a stunning wavefront in all directions. An instant later his head slammed into an invisible wall and he recognized with a fresh surge of panic the folly of using a sonic in such an enclosed space. His arms tugged convulsively against the handcuffs as the lasers fired again, and abruptly the metal snapped and his arms swung free.

  But the brief sonic blast and flash of light had alerted the Qasamans. Even as

  Justin's arms came loose they were grabbed by hard hands. Grabbed tightly-and the servos beneath the skin and muscle twisted the arms up and forward, slamming the two men head to head. Their grips slipped and he pulled free-and then there was no time for anything but terror as the five mojos screamed to the attack.

  Justin's mind blanked completely then, and the only memory he had of what happened next was the sounds of the birds and the horrible thunderstorm dazzle of a hundred laser flashes....

  The stench brought him back to reality a few seconds later; the stench of burned meat and of his own vomit. Unsteadily, he got to his feet and looked around at the carnage. The mojos-all of them-were dead. The five Qasamans... Justin couldn't tell. Two of them definitely were, with prominent laser burns over vital spots, but the others-Moff included-were less certain. But whether burn shock, the sonic, or his flailing arms had put them out of action wasn't important. They could not hurt him, and he had no desire to inquire further.

  The elevator was still going down. The whole thing had clearly taken less time than it'd seemed to, and it penetrated dimly into Justin's rattled consciousness that unless the elevator contained monitors the Qasamans waiting below for him would be unaware of what had just happened. He might still be able to escape.

  He jabbed at his best guess for the ground floor button... and then at a second and a third before he realized that, unlike those on Aventine, this elevator design didn't allow for cancellation. The car would keep going down until it reached the floor Moff had signaled. Where more Qasamans would be waiting for him.

  He had flipped over on his back on the unmoving bodies and his antiarmor laser was already tracing an off-center square in the ceiling before he r
ecognized on a conscious level that he would not, could not, face whatever awaited him at the bottom of the elevator shaft. The false ceiling and relatively thin metal behind it were no match for the laser, and as the charred square fell practically into his lap Justin scrambled to his feet. He took a bare second to gain his balance and jumped.

  Never before, not even in training, had he pushed his leg servos to their limit, and he actually gasped in shock as he shot through the opening like a misshapen missile. All around him, only dimly visible even with the aid of his enhancers, were cables and guy lines. A flicker of light from a door crack washed over him-then another, and another-he was slowing down-stopping in midair-

  Instinctively, he grabbed; and a second later he was again moving downward, his arms wrapped solidly around the main elevator cable.

  So he was out of the car, and out of the direct line of fire from the Qasamans below... but he was still deep within their stronghold and had left a trail a child could follow. He had to figure out a way to escape, and he had to do so fast.

  Oddly enough, though-or so it seemed to him-the suffocating panic had dissipated far enough for him to be able to think again. His incredible jump had been a sledge-hammer reminder both of the power his Cobra equipment gave him and of the fact that his father, too, had once been imprisoned like this and had survived.

  A sheet of light swept by: one of the landing doors he'd jumped past seconds ago. On a hunch, he shoved off the cable toward it, fingers and feet finding holds on framework and opening-mechanism bars. He found a narrow ledge to stand on and regained his balance as, a meter away, the cable continued its way down.

  Carefully, he took a shuddering breath. I am Justin Moreau, he reminded himself firmly. A Cobra, following in my father's footsteps. I will-I will-survive this.

  Fine. So how do I start?

  One thing was for sure: he had several floors to go before he even got to the surface. Shifting his grip, he leaned out as far as he safely could. The position of the door directly above could be inferred from reflected light, but there were too many bars and other metallic junk in the way for it to be visible. So jumping floor to floor was out; ditto for climbing through stuff that questionable. A service ladder? But a quick survey of the shaft showed nothing that would serve such a function.

  A meter away, the cable abruptly slowed and stopped... and from below came the faint sound of elevator doors opening.

  Again Justin shifted position, swinging his left leg to point directly toward the hole he'd cut in the car's ceiling and simultaneously bringing up his optical enhancers' magnification capabilities. The sight of the bodies on the floor sent a fresh wave of revulsion through him; but before he had time for more than a quick shiver there was an explosion of Qasaman voices from below, and someone stepped into the car.

  Damn, Justin mouthed the word, caught once more in indecision. Should he try and get out of the shaft before the Qasamans below came to the obvious conclusion as to his whereabouts, or should he stay and try to discourage pursuit?

  The decision was made for him. Abruptly, the figure below became a face and a pistol, and the shaft thundered with the echo of his shot.

  A wild shot, of course; he couldn't have any idea where Justin actually was. The

  Cobra's response was considerably more accurate, and even at this range the antiarmor laser was perfectly adequate for such a purpose. The gunner fell in a heap onto the bodies beneath him. A second face appeared, and Justin shot that one, too-

  And from below came the sound of the car's doors closing. A second later, the cable beside him started upwards.

  Justin gaped for a couple of heartbeats before his mental wheels caught and he jumped over to again cling to the cable. What had happened was now obvious: having reached the floor Moff had sent it to, the elevator was now responding to the buttons Justin had pushed on the way down.

  For the moment, at least, Justin seemed to be one step ahead of them.

  After the flurry of activity preceding it, the ride toward ground level seemed to drag on and on, and it gave him the chance to assess his own injuries. Both hands, particularly the little fingers, were speckled with tiny molten-metal burns from his blasting of tile handcuff chain an eternity earlier. The rings themselves were biting hard into his wrists as he pressed against the greasy cable. Something, presumably blood, was dripping slowly down his cheek from a cut over his left eye that hurt like blazes. He hadn't realized before that any of the mojos had gotten so close... and the thought of what might have happened-or could yet happen-

  Reality broke into the uncomfortable speculation: the elevator was slowing down.

  The car, he estimated, was about three floors below him. When the doors opened he would begin sliding down the cable toward it, keeping his antiarmor laser aimed and ready. If the Qasamans still hadn't caught on he would drop through the ceiling hole, out the door, and make a mad dash for the exit, relying on his speed and computerized reflexes to get him through.

  Below him the car doors opened-and as they did, the top of the car was abruptly flooded with light and the roar of sustained gunfire exploded into the shaft.

  Justin jerked violently, nearly losing his grip. The car was already being obscured by a haze of smoke. Through it the staccato flashing of the guns lit up the shaft with an unearthly glow. Splinters of shattered steel scythed the air in counterpoint to the invisible battering of the bullets that were demolishing everything in range.

  And Justin's brief respite from panic was over.

  Across from him another of the landing doors was visible in the flickering light. As the barrage below reached its peak his leg swung convulsively around, the laser within it tracing a distorted ellipse across the doors. For that heart-rending second it didn't matter that the Qasamans might have a dozen gunmen ringing each elevator door; didn't even matter that a moment's study probably would have revealed an emergency mechanism that might have given them far less warning of his presence. All that mattered was that the guns below could be turned upwards at any second, and that he wanted out of the deathtrap now. Twisting his legs to the horizontal, he shoved hard against the cable with his hands. The charred ellipse broke like foil as he hit it, and he flew helplessly into the hallway beyond, slamming into the far wall and bouncing off into a barely balanced crouch.

  The hallway was empty.

  For a long moment he sat there trembling on his haunches, his brain struggling to pierce the unreality of the situation to figure out what had happened. They knew he was in the shaft-the roar of gunfire still coming from below more than proved that. So why weren't all the exits from the shaft being guarded?

  Because they thought he was still on the elevator roof?

  Probably. A concealed weapon would likely not have been powerful enough to kill the two men from any further away than the roof. And they wouldn't have any idea just how high his servos let him jump.

  Getting to his feet, he gulped a ragged breath and took stock of the situation.

  The hallway stretched for thirty meters or so in both directions, its walls lined with incomprehensibly labeled doors. At the far ends small windows reflected his image.

  Small, but probably large enough to get through. Picking the closest of the two ends, Justin headed for it at a dead run.

  And he almost made it. But if guarding all exits from the elevator shaft hadn't been the Qasamans' first priority, neither had it been forgotten. His own footsteps masking the sound of their approach, Justin's first warning was the blood-chilling scream of a mojo directly behind him. He twisted around, getting just the briefest glimpse of talons arcing for his face before his nanocomputer took over.

  The servos in his legs wrenched him to the side, out of the mojo's line of flight. Its wingtips brushed his face as it overshot him, screaming again in what sounded uncannily like rage. At the far end of the hall, five Qasamans had come from somewhere, their guns aimed and ready; and four more mojos were sweeping to the attack.

  And for the second ti
me that night the sight of the birds drove all reason and nerve from his mind. Falling backwards to slam against the wall, he snapped his burned hands up... and as his brain fogged over with terror, his nanocomputer turned them into fountains of laser fire.

  He came to a few seconds later to find all five mojos dead. At the end of the hallway, he could see at least three Qasaman bodies, as well. The survivors-if there'd been any-had vanished.

  Witnesses to his Cobra firepower; but that thought didn't occur to Justin until a long time afterwards. Back on his feet, he headed again for his target window, sonic disruptor focused on it. The weapon found and locked onto the window's primary resonance, increased its amplitude... and with Justin two steps from it, the glass shattered, taking much of the sash framework with it in its violent demise. Increasing his speed, Justin put down his head and dove through the hole.

 
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