Cobra strike, p.22
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       Cobra Strike, p.22

           Timothy Zahn
"I'm not really interested in destroying anything," Pyre told him. "I'm here mainly to arrange our companions' release."

  Kimmeron's lip curled. "You are remarkably slow to learn," he spat. "Didn't the death of your other messenger teach you a lesson?"

  Pyre felt his mouth go dry. "What other messenger? You mean the contact team?"

  For a moment the other frowned. Then his face cleared in understanding. "Ah. The jamming of your radio signals was effective against you, at least. I see. So you do not know the man Winward left your ship without permission and was shot."

  Winward? Had Telek started her breakout attempt already? "Why did you shoot him?" he snapped. "You just said he was a messenger-

  "For the unprovoked deaths of eight men in Purma and six here you are all responsible. You have spied and you have murdered, and your punishment will be that of death."

  Pyre stared at him, mental wheels unable to catch. Winward... shot down like a spine leopard, probably without so much as a warning. Then why aren't they shooting at me? Simple fear?-he wouldn't be taken by surprise, after all. Or was it something more practical? With Winward gone and whatever the hell had happened in Purma-whatever that was-all over, did they want a live Cobra to study?

  His gaze drifted to the particular bank of displays Kimmeron had been studying.

  Rooms, corridors, outside views... three showed the Dewdrop. Must be from the airfield tower, he realized. Live picture? If so there was still a chance for some of them to escape; the ship seemed undamaged.

  "We would prefer to keep you alive at present," Kimmeron broke into his thoughts. "You, and the ones named Cerenkov and Rynstadt, have no possibility of escaping. I tell you this so that you will not try and thereby force us to kill you prematurely."

  "Our ship might escape," Pyre pointed out. "And it will tell our people of our imprisonment."

  "Your ship, too, cannot escape." Kimmeron was quietly certain. "The weapons set against it will destroy it before it reaches the end of the field."

  But the Dewdrop can lift straight up. Would that make enough of a difference?

  There was no way to know... but given the national paranoia, Pyre tended to doubt it. "I'd still like to talk to you about release of our companions," he told the mayor, just for something to say.

  Kimmeron arched his eyebrows. "You speak foolishness," he bit out. "We have you and the body of Winward, from which your so-named 'magic' powers can surely be learned."

  "Our magic cannot be learned from a corpse," Pyre lied.

  "You are still alive," the other said pointedly. "From Cerenkov and Rynstadt we will obtain information about your culture and technology which will prepare us for any attack your world launches against us in the future. And from your ship-intact or in pieces-we will learn even more, perhaps enough to finally regain star travel. All that is within our hands; what could you offer of greater value for allowing your departure?"

  There was no answer Pyre could give to that... and it occurred to him that a method which allowed its users to learn Anglic in a week might indeed let them reconstruct the Dewdrop and its systems from whatever wreckage remained after its destruction.

  Which meant that his gallant rescue attempt was now, and always had been, doomed to failure. Cerenkov and Rynstadt were beyond help, and Pyre's own last minutes would be spent right here in the mayor's underground nerve center. If he could somehow find the communications panel-and then find a way to shut off or broadcast through the jamming-and then figure out how to signal the Dewdrop to get the hell away-and all before sheer weight of numbers overwhelmed him-

  And as the impossibilities of each step lined up before him like mountains the universe presented him a gift. A small gift, hardly more than a sign... but He saw it, and Kimmeron did not, and he had the satisfaction of giving the mayor a genuine smile. "What do I have to offer, Mr. Mayor?" he said calmly. "A great deal, actually... because all that was in your hands a moment ago is even now slipping through your fingers."

  Kimmeron frowned... and as he started to speak Pyre heard a sharp intake of breath from the guard spokesman beside him. Kimmeron twisted to look behind him... and when he turned back his face was pale. "How-?"

  "How?" Pyre shifted his eyes over Kimmeron's shoulder, to the displays that showed the airfield tower and environs.

  -Or that had done so a few minutes earlier. Now, the entire bank showed a uniform gray.

  How? "Very simple, Mr. Mayor," Pyre said... and suppressed the shiver of that boyhood memory. Like MacDonald before him on that awful day of vengeance against

  Challinor.... "Winward, it appears, has returned from the dead."

  Chapter 21

  It was so unexpected-so totally unexpected-that Winward never even had a chance to react. One minute he was walking around the tower with his Qasaman escort, surreptitiously searching the building and immediate area for weapons and additional guards and trying to work out exactly what he would say when they reached whoever he was being taken to. Just walking peacefully... and then the leader muttered something and turned around... and before Winward could do more than focus on the other the night lit up with a thunderous flash and a sledgehammer slammed into the center of his chest, blowing him backwards into nothingness as the crack of the lethal shot echoed in his ears....

  The blackness in his brain faded slowly, and for what seemed like hours he drifted slowly toward the reality he could faintly sense above him. The pain came first-dull, throbbing pain in his chest; sharp, stinging pain in his eyes and face-and with that breakthrough the rest of his senses began to function again. Sounds filtered in: footsteps, doors opening and closing, occasional incomprehensible voices. He discovered he was on his back, bouncing rhythmically as if being carried, and every so often he felt a trickle of something run down his ribs under his tunic.

  And slowly, he realized what had happened.

  He'd been shot. Deliberately and maliciously shot. And was probably dying.

  The only general rule he could recall from his first-aid training was that injury victims should not be unnecessarily moved. And so he remained still, eyes closed against the pain there, as he waited for loss of blood to dim his consciousness back into darkness.

  But it wasn't happening. On the contrary, with each passing heartbeat he felt his mind sharpening, with strength and sensation rapidly returning to his limbs.

  Far from dying, he was actually coming back to life.

  What the hell?

  And it was only then, as his body and brain finally meshed enough to localize his wound, that he realized what had happened.

  The Qasaman had shot him in the center of his chest. Directly over the breastbone. The breastbone which, coated with ceramic laminae, was functionally unbreakable.

  The aftermath was less clear, but its main points weren't hard to figure out.

  The bullet's impact had knocked the air out of him, possibly even temporarily stopped his heart, and for the past few seconds or minutes he'd been fighting to get oxygen back into his system. His face and eyes must have taken the impact of burning propellant to sting as they did, and for a painful heartbeat he recognized that he might have been permanently blinded.

  But somehow even that didn't seem important at the moment. He was alive, he was reasonably functional-

  And the Qasamans thought he was dead.

  They would pay for that mistake. Pay in blood.

  Starting right now. Winward's eyes might be unusable, but the optical enhancers set into the skin around them were harder to damage and fed into the optic nerves further back inside the skull's protection. They weren't really designed to replace normal vision, but a minute's experimentation showed that a zero-magnification setting combined with the lowest light-amp level provided an adequate picture.

  Between the four head-and-upper-torsos bobbing at the edges of the view, he could see a ceiling passing overhead. Carefully, keeping the motion slow, he eased his head a few degrees to the side. A couple of doors went by, the party turned a corner, and
abruptly they were through open double doors and into a white-walled room with bright steel fixtures extending to the ceiling in various places. The four stretcher-bearers set him down on a hard table, and he let his head loll so to leave it turned to his right, toward the exit. The men left, closing the doors behind them, and he was alone Though probably not for long.

  The room he was in was very obviously a sick bay or surgery, and in the

  Qasamans' place Winward would want a preliminary dissection started on a dead

  Cobra as quickly as possible. The doctors were probably prepping in another room, and could arrive at any time.

  Forcing himself to again move slowly, Winward eased his head up and down until he located the glassy eye of a fisheye monitor camera. It was in a back upper corner, out of direct line of any of his lasers or his sonic disrupter. He could lift his hands and fire, of course, but if someone was watching the monitor closely the alarm would be raised before he even got through the double doors into the hall. Using his omnidirectional sonic to shake up the picture before shooting wouldn't help appreciably, either. What he really needed was a diversion.

  Behind him there was the sound of a door opening, and a second later four white-gowned people came around the maze of support equipment and into view.

  And a diversion abruptly became vital. The soldiers and stretcher-carriers outside might miss his slow breathing or the fact that the skin of his chest was still bleeding, but the approaching doctors hadn't a chance in hell of doing so.

  He had to keep them away before they found out he was still alive.

  The leader was within a meter of him now. Activating his omnidirectional,

  Winward ran it to its lowest frequency setting and held his breath.

  Their reaction was all he could have hoped for. The leader jerked to a stop as the inaudible waves hit him, the second in line stumbling into him as she staggered slightly. For a minute they all stood together in a little knot just beyond the most uncomfortable zone, conversing in voices that sounded both concerned and irritated. Winward waited, gritting his teeth himself against the gut-rattling sound as he waited for their next move.

  It came quickly, and was one more indication of how much the high command wanted the Cobra dissected immediately. Waving the others back, the leader picked up a sharp-looking instrument from a nearby tray and stepped to the table. He reached down to pull back Winward's tunic-

  And jumped back with a strangled gasp as the Cobra's sonic disrupter flash-heated the skin of his hand. Followed by one of the others, he dashed around the table to the back door, shouting as he ran.

  The door opened and closed, and for a moment the last two Qasamans huddled together, whispering in fear or awe or both to each other. Winward tried to guess what they'd try next, but the grinding of his sonic combined with the throbbing pain in his chest and face was fogging his mind too much for him to hold a coherent train of thought.

  Again, he didn't have long to wait. One of the two disappeared toward the back of the room, returning a minute later with a coil of insulated electrical cable.

  Snaring a knife from the instrument tray, he began stripping the insulation from one end... and as the other Qasaman plugged the wire's other end into what appeared to be a ground socket beneath a wall outlet, Winward realized with growing excitement that the break he'd hoped for was here.

  Clearly, the Qasamans had jumped to the conclusion that their colleague had suffered an electrical burn from Winward's body and were preparing to try and drain the excess charge away.

  Another minute and they were ready. The first Qasaman replaced the knife in the tray and swung the bare copper wire gently as he prepared to loft it over the

  Cobra's chest. Moving his right hand fractionally, Winward lined up his fingertip laser on the socket where the cable had been grounded. It was going to be a bit of a stretch, but he had no choice but to try it. The copper snake flew through the air, draped itself across his chest... and Winward fired his arcthrower.

  A bit of a stretch indeed, and for a heart-stopping fraction of a second he watched the clean light of the laser burning its solitary way through the air without any response from the capacitors deep within his body cavity. Then the split second was past, and the ionized path reached the required conductance and a lightning bolt shattered the air. And even as the thunderclap seemed to split open Winward's head, the sudden current flow overloaded the circuit breakers-

  And the room was plunged into darkness.

  Winward was off the table before the echoes had faded away; was out through the double doors a second later. If the monitor camera hadn't been taken out with the room's lights, it was almost guaranteed that the afterimage of that flash would mask the brief flicker of hall light as the Cobra escaped.

  For a wonder, the hall was deserted. Presumably the medical area had no command stations within it and, hence, little traffic under normal conditions. He headed down the hall to look for a stairway; and as he did so, he carefully pried open his eyelids.

  Nothing. The Qasaman's gunshot had blinded him. Perhaps beyond even Aventine's surgical abilities. The cold fury simmering within him began to heat up again.

  Along with York's arm, it was one more score to be settled with this world.

  He changed hallways twice before spotting anyone; and when he finally did, he hit the entire jackpot at once. Rounding a corner, he was just in time to see the elevator he'd been seeking disgorge a half dozen Qasamans barely ten meters away from him. One of them was the man who'd shot him.

  The whole group froze in shock, and even the limited quality of his enhancer image gave Winward the grim satisfaction of watching sheer unbelieving terror flood into his former assailant's face. Three seconds they all stood there; four seconds, five-and, abruptly, they all went madly for their weapons.

  Winward pirouetted on his right foot and cut a blaze of death across them with his antiarmor laser.

  The mojos escaped that first shot, but even as they swept toward him in impotent rage his fingertip lasers shot them to the floor. Winward didn't waste a backward glance as he jumped over the charred bodies and between the closing elevator doors. The selector panel gave him momentary pause-there were at least three times as many buttons as the tower ought to need. But he knew where he needed to go. Pushing the top button, he listened to the faint hum of the elevator's motor and prepared himself for combat.

  The door opened, and he stepped out into a dimly-lit room to face a dozen drawn pistols.

  They barked as one... but Winward was no longer in the line of fire. Leg servos snapped him upwards, flipped him over in time to hit the ceiling feet first, crashing shin-deep through the tiles there to bounce off the stronger ceiling above; pushed him back toward the floor behind the line of gunmen, again flipping him over in midflight. He hit the floor with fingertip lasers blazing... and it was doubtful that any of the Qasamans realized what had happened before they died.

  Again the mojos outlived their masters, and again Winward made that escape momentary. But this time one of them got through before dying, its talons opening up a ten-centimeter gash in his left arm.

  "Damn it all," Winward snarled aloud, tearing off the bloody tunic sleeve and wrapping it awkwardly around the wound. The ambush meant the alarm had gone out, though he hadn't heard any sirens... and as he focused for the first time on the room around him, he realized why they hadn't needed any such warning.

  Ringing the room at eye level were large windows-presumably one-way since he hadn't noticed any windows this high from the outside-through which he could see the Dewdrop lying so painfully vulnerable out on the darkened landing field.

  Below the windows was a ring of monitor displays.

  So he'd found the situation room, or at least an auxiliary one. On some of the displays armed men were rushing about madly, and Winward stepped back to the elevator doors to listen. The car was on its way up-filled, no doubt, with suicidal soldiers. Looking around the room, he found the three monitor cameras a
nd put laser bolts into each. Blinder now than he was, they'd just have to guess what he was up to... and while they sweated that one, he had a couple more surprises in store for them.

  Moving to the side away from the Dewdrop, he put his face to the windows there and looked down. He hadn't had much of a look out back before he was shot, but he'd seen something... and, sure enough, from above he could pick out the heavy guns waiting in the tower's shadow. Ready to be pushed from cover and throw explosives at the ship... but only if there was someone there to do the pushing.

  The nearest monitor cabinet displayed duplicates of a dozen other screens around the room, as if it was the feeder nexus for another monitor station elsewhere in the building. Winward sent an arcthrower charge into the mechanism to trip out any power lines; then, gripping it firmly, he pulled it out of its wall fastenings and raised it to a precarious balance over his head. The glass-or whatever-of the window was tough: it took nearly fifteen seconds of the Cobra's sonic disrupter. Winward wondered what those below would make of the sudden rain of glass as he stepped to the opening and hurled the cabinet at one of the guns with all the accuracy and strength his Cobra gear could give him.

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